Remote islands as a laboratory for studying policing: The role of the social and natural environment


Time to read

4 Minutes

The All Souls Lecture Series was kicked off on 11 October with an engaging talk on ‘Criminology at the periphery: understanding police work in the remote Northern islands of Scotland’ by Dr Anna Souhami, Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh School of Law. Drawing on her ethnographic research in Shetland and the Western Isles, she made us question our understanding of ‘place’ and what it means when applied to criminological research. Dr Souhami began with the idea that there are limitations to our conceptual vocabulary, particularly within research that considers urban policing as the norm. Islands have been used as laboratories to test theories in the natural sciences, and Dr Souhami utilises a similar approach in order to ‘explore the blind spots in the way we think’ about policing.   

A change in policy forms the backdrop of this project. When Police Scotland, a centralised, national force, was created in 2013, there were concerns about the potential ‘strathclydisation’ of the police. This term suggested that the Strathclyde Police Force based in Glasgow could dictate the strategy and practices of policing conducted across the country. Focusing particularly on her research in Shetland, Dr Souhami introduced her audience to life on a remote island and described what the maintenance of order looks like when ‘stuck on a rock.’ The first theme she discussed was that of ‘remoteness’ in a place where it can take 12 hours, including a boat ride that costs 300 Pounds each way, to get to the ‘mainland’. However, this ‘remoteness’ also allowed for the development of a robust community with a strong local identity. Her research illustrates how such a peculiar environment can shape an officer’s perception of their social world, and their role within it, which is then translated into real-world practice.

Given the small, scattered population and relatively low crime rate in Shetland, there are only a small number of officers, no specialised units, and no custody officers. This means that officers handle issues ranging from drug use to maritime crime, and if they do choose to arrest someone, this takes over their entire shift. Officers stationed in Shetland are unlikely to have been born there, and so their acceptance into this close-knit community is necessary to overcome suspicions of ‘outsiders’ interfering with life on the archipelago. Given Shetland’s small size and interdependence, all residents are subject to observation and inspection by one another. Dr Souhami described how, beyond the potential experience of exclusion and eventual loneliness, officers would not be able to do their job without community acceptance and cooperation.

She also explained the way in which gossip, though not malicious, could be thought of as a tool of social control. She introduced numerous anecdotes from her own experiences during the research. Since Dr Souhami conducted over 600 hours of observational research and interviews and attended community meetings, there were many from which to choose. There was her discovery that the binoculars she noticed were not meant for bird watching, but rather to keep an eye on the people living there, and her own turning point towards being accepted by the community spurred by attending weekly dance classes at the social hall (and ‘getting a grilling’ during the St Bernard’s Waltz). One of the most intriguing descriptions was that of the Up Helly Aa Festival, born from their Norse heritage, which is a tourist attraction and centrepiece of life on Shetland. Dr Souhami recounted her participation as a host of an event associated with this Viking fire festival, and the 10-foot-high billboard erected in the town centre detailing embarrassing stories about the residents from that year. These embarrassing stories were also acted out in a sketch, highlighting the strong community hold and intense scrutiny experienced by Shetland’s inhabitants.  

Returning to the importance of acceptance, officers are thought to police the residents of Shetland by consent. Dr Souhami discussed this in reference to Spark’s and Bottom’s work involving the ‘mutual negotiation of order’ in prison. Community members wield social power, meaning that they have control over the officers’ experiences on Shetland, and do not want newcomers to change things. She spoke about how the islanders described Shetland as ‘policing itself,’ with simply the physical presence of an officer affecting their actions. This could be considered as a form of ‘community policing’, although this is not how most researchers would understand the term. According to her research, officers spoke with humanity about the individuals they policed, thinking about the entire person rather than the crime they may have committed. Even someone who had physically assaulted an officer was described with empathy and respect, as if he was part of the family.

Notably, her theme of ‘policing as an archipelago’ showed that although officers on Shetland are isolated in some ways, core policing goals and targets were still translated onto the archipelago, with adjustments made using the conditions given by the community. Dr Souhami presented one example of an officer who had given his wife a ticket to make himself ‘look busy’. However, officers were generally reluctant to use sanctions with the aim of meeting a target. Most importantly, since officers on Shetland do not have the ability to call for back up and depend on community consent, de-escalation techniques prevail. The officers’ treatment of residents like family, reluctance to sanction, and focus on de-escalation mark subtle but important differences from mainland policing. It is clear that policing on remote islands is not a ‘clone’ of the mainland, but questions remain about whether this form of policing develops from ‘adaptive strategy’, or if the unusual environment produces something fundamentally different from conventional urban policing models.

Dr Souhami concluded with a discussion about the sky, which ‘is not just scenery’ and has significance for the everyday life of these officers. She explained how the intense darkness, black fog, the northern lights, and other aspect of the natural environment are fundamental to the way in which Shetland officers think, speak, and act. Officers describe the moon as having a direct effect on people’s behaviour, and the way in which the darkness, colourlessness, and cloud cover contribute to experiences of claustrophobia. This environmental experience acts as constant ‘background noise’ to the way officers think about their work.   

Overall, those in the audience were given a lot to consider, including the limits of our previously held notions and conceptual vocabulary around policing. By exploring the role of the social and natural environment in shaping policing, this lecture encourages us to think more about participation and the visceral experience of ‘place’ both in our research and in everyday lives.

Here is a recording of the talk

Post by Katharine Hoeger, DPhil candidate at the Centre for Criminology